WHEN TYLER MERCIER WALKS DOWN the streets of Los Alamos, N.Mex., these days, drivers glare at him. Some angrily raise a middle finger in his direction. The hostility is as strange as it is unsettling to the 34-year-old sculptor who, when he moved to Los Alamos in January 1989, believed he had found an earthly paradise. Perched on a 7,000-foot-high desert mesa and surrounded by wilderness, the tranquil town of 11,000 seemed an ideal place for him to summon his muse.

Trouble arrived, ironically, as Mercier was coming to the defense of Los Alamos. In January 1990, amid discussions on a new plutonium-processing facility, environmentalists expressed qualms about the health hazards of living close to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear-weapons design facility. Mercier, who describes himself as a political conservative who strongly believes in the need for a nuclear deterrent, dismissed the talk as irrational and offered to set up a simple system for monitoring radiation levels in the community.

To the sculptor's surprise—and dismay—the three dosimeters he set up around town registered more than twice the amount of radiation he had been advised was normal. In August 1990, after Mercier made his findings public, a scientist from the National Laboratory approached him privately with evidence of seven recent brain-tumor deaths in one Los Alamos neighborhood. Last October, having discovered five more brain-tumor victims, Mercier submitted the list of 12 names to the laboratory, asking what they made of it. For months there was no response. "I lost many nights of sleep wondering what to do," says Mercier. "I didn't want to create a false concern. But I thought people in that neighborhood had a right to know if their lives were in danger." On May 23 he discussed his list at a public meeting.

There has always been a hush-hush atmosphere in Los Alamos. The community that grew up on the site where government scientists quarantined themselves nearly a half century ago to build the first atomic bomb is still a one-industry town. But spurred by Mercier's public alert, the National Laboratory has finally begun a serious self-examination, investing an estimated $1 million to check for air, soil and water contamination throughout the area.

Since May, Mercier's count of recent primary brain-tumor cases has risen to 41. From talking with surviving relatives, Mercier learned that many of these tumor victims had frequented Acid Canyon, a recreational area that was used as a dump site for radioactive materials and toxic chemicals between 1944 and 1964. He is no longer alone in his suspicions. Recently, the Department of Energy earmarked $400,000 to determine whether the apparent cluster of brain-tumor victims uncovered by Mercier is indeed cause for concern.

Mercier, who moved to Los Alamos so that his wife, Christina, now 33, could take a job as a supercomputer specialist at the National Laboratory, says he had a moral obligation to go public with his findings, but local reaction has often been skeptical. Though he has never pretended to be a nuclear expert, some residents believe he is out of his depth. "Mercier's intentions are good, but I think he has a hard time dealing with the data and reads a lot into it," says Los Alamos internist Jon Johnson, who has treated some of the brain-tumor victims on Mercier's list.

Hank Winburn, a retired engineer who worked with plutonium at the laboratory for several decades, comes down harder on Mercier's nonscientific background: "It's a matter of the blind leading the blind into an area they're not familiar with." Other residents worry that his charges will hurt property values. "There have been numerous anonymous letters saying that I would be killed by the "nuclear crowd' or the 'nuclear boys,' " Mercier says. Still, he is not without defenders. "I think Tyler did a remarkably good job of gathering his data," says Bob Watt, a retired nuclear physicist.

Fed up with the harassment and worried about having his 17-month-old son, Daniel, grow up in a potentially toxic environment, Mercier is now house hunting with Christina in nearby Santa Fe. "I feel I've done everything I can here," he says.

In the meantime, Mercier still routinely retreats to his sculpture studio at 4 A.M. for a few quiet hours before spending the day caring for Daniel. While sales of his sculptures have declined as a result of his unpopular revelations, Mercier believes he is in the midst of a period of personal growth as an artist. "I used to do erotic nudes," he says. "Now I'm doing mothers who lost their children." Mercier's sense of priorities has also changed. "When this started, I was a sculptor trying to make lots of money," he says. "Suddenly, just taking care of my son seems infinitely more important."

DAVID GROGAN
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Los Alamos

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Haederle.